On Defense of the Soul

One of the most prolific questions mankind has asked throughout history is whether human beings (hereafter, “persons”) have a “soul.” This topic is critical to understanding the concept of free moral agency, as this applies to conscious decision-making regarding right and wrong, and whether man survives the death of the body in the afterlife. Except for those holding a religious view of the world, most scientists deny the existence of the soul. Dualists(1) argue that persons are comprised of a body and a soul.

Immortality is the indefinite existence of a person after death, when the soul leaves the body and continues to exist. The substance that survives death of the body is an immaterial soul. Beyond the Platonic concept that immortality implies survival of the soul only, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam teach immortality involves persistence of the soul and resurrection of the physical body. To achieve this, the spiritual realm must provide for an intermediate state in which the soul exists until reunited with its body. It is my argument that the soul exists despite scientific argument to the contrary; that it consists of the persistent and vital part of persons; and, that the soul survives physical death by its very nature. 

First, philosophers who argue from the position of Dualism(1) espouse a critical difference between properties of body and soul. Each survive death differently and can exist apart from one another if only for a short time. Humans are comprised of a material body (substance) and an essence (soul). “Substance” in this instance bears the physical properties of humans; “soul” bears the metaphysical properties—mind, will, and “person.” The concepts of first-person perspective (“I taste something sweet.”) and intentionality (“I desire to teach and intend to earn a PhD.”) are unique to persons. J.P. Moreland says, “Human persons are identical to immaterial substances, namely, to souls.”(2) Further, persons are capable of metacognition (able to know they are thinking; able to think about what they are thinking about); and possess a sense of “oughtness” and “responsibility” (e.g., a code of moral conduct).

J.P. Moreland has noted that “self” has replaced the soul in contemporary psychology. This is unfortunate as psychologists tend to identify self as “psyche.” These terms are not necessarily identical. Self has often been viewed as having an existence of its own, possessing “identity,” a sense of continuity over time, and the capacity to instigate and evaluate action. These attributes mirror the philosophical/theological concept of soul. It has been said that a man or woman is still the same person even if he or she lost a leg or an arm, or had a kidney excised by a surgeon. However, J. K. Howard claims that although this is true regarding the body, the same cannot be said of the soul as no part can exist independently of the whole.(3)

Second, the continued existence of “person” over time is evidence for the existence of the soul. If self were to be considered the mere relational aspect of persons, there would be no allowance for personal moral agency. Instead, self would be the victim of events of random cause and concern. Truly personal actions require time and a unified self that result from the dynamics of personal agency. C.S. Lewis believed if mental processes are determined solely by the motions of atoms in the human brain, then we have no reason to suppose our beliefs are true.(4) “Essence” is always separated from actual, physical, reality. For example, the “sweetness” of an apple is separate from the physical existence of an apple. For Kant, it is the self that provides transcendental unity regarding thoughts and perceptions. Locke said the mind, in all its thoughts and reasonings, has no other immediate object by its own ideas, which it alone can contemplate.(5) These two issues involve having an awareness of self beyond existence of a physical body.

A person can be five-foot-eleven at age 29 but measure only five-foot-eight at age 89, yet he or she remains essentially the same person. Physical changes in the human body over time do not impact the persistence of “person.” If material changes do not alter the essence of persons, and death is a material change, then death cannot alter the essence of persons. Analytically, it is proper to say, “a tall man is a man,” but the comment “Abraham Lincoln was a great president” is a synthetic proposition.

Third, so-called near-death experiences (NDEs) may provide evidence for the existence of the soul. Plato recorded a near-death experience, the “Myth of Er,” in the 4th century BC at the end of The Republic. Plato related the story of a soldier named Er who seemingly died on the battlefield only to awaken twelve days later. Er was able to provide details about the soul’s immortality and its progress after death. According to a 1991 Gallup Poll estimate, 13 million Americans, 5% of the population, have reported that they have had a near-death experience. Research has demonstrated that near death experiences are no more likely to affect the devoutly religious than the agnostic or atheist. Near-death experiences can be experienced by anyone.(6) Near-death experiences occur at a time when the person is so physically compromised that they are typically unconscious, comatose, or clinically dead. Considering NDEs from both a medical perspective and logically, it should not be possible for unconscious people to often report highly lucid experiences that are clear and logically structured. Most people who experience NDEs report super-normal consciousness at the time of their NDEs.(7)  

NDEs are reported by about 17% of those who nearly die.(8) NDEs have been reported by children, adults, scientists, physicians, priests, ministers, among the religious and atheists, and from countries throughout the world. While no two NDEs are the same, there are characteristic features that are commonly observed in NDEs: a perception of seeing and hearing apart from the physical body; passing into or through a tunnel; encountering a mystical light; intense and generally positive emotions; a review of part or all prior life experiences; encountering deceased loved ones; and a choice to return to earthly life.(9) Michael Potts wrote, “I… argue that the present NDEs [near death experiences] do offer persuasive evidence for life after death.”(10) He said the phenomena reported by individuals who were resuscitated from cardiac arrest included viewing one’s body, observing resuscitation, moving in a tunnel toward a light, visions of dead relatives, and visions of Jesus Christ.

Dualism faces a troubling criticism: the mind-body interaction problem. Immaterial souls have no mass and do not occupy space. Locke and Hume argue that persons are nothing more than a bundle of psychological dispositions, beliefs, and memories. Materialism makes the claim that everything that exists is material; nothing exists beyond particles, molecules, planets, stars, and galaxies. It further claims that we can only attain an understanding of reality from what physics says about it. Naturalism goes further, denying the existence of a supernatural or metaphysical aspect to reality.

Robert Martone reported on recent studies which argued bodily sensations in NDEs involving vivid memories might merely be a strong impression of being real rather than true events, and might reflect something more fundamental than religious or cultural expectations, namely a mere reflection in changes of brain function as death approaches. Such experiences famously include one’s life “flashing before the eyes;” the sensation of leaving the body (often seeing one’s own face and body, blissfully traveling through a tunnel toward a light); and, feeling “at one” with something akin to “God.”(11) Martone disagreed, saying these studies show significant weaknesses because they are based purely subjective reports—some taken decades after the event.

Christianity has been accused of providing nothing more than a very elementary argument for life after death, especially how a dead, decomposed, cremated, or obliterated body can possibly be resurrected. However, these defeaters are not convincing because they fail to address metaphysical forces. Dualism answers these claims by positing that the human brain is not the same as the human “mind.”

Conclusion

Dualism allows for a critical difference between properties of body and soul. Humans are comprised of a material body (substance) and an essence (soul). The concepts of first-person perspective and intentionality support the dual nature of persons. Continued existence of “person” over time, and the perpetual notion of moral agency further suggest the existence of the soul. If the human brain were composed merely of atoms, persons would have no basis for religious and other beliefs. Near-death experiences have been accounted for as early in human history as Plato. The universality of experience, and the lack of scientific explanation for cognitive experience during cessation of physical life, establishes the likely existence of the soul. It is therefore my conclusion that persons are comprised of physical properties and metaphysical properties; that human persons have both a body and a soul.

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theo.

Bibliography
(1) Plato, Descartes, St. Augustine, Aquinas.
(2) J.P. Moreland and Scott Rae, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 121.
(3) J.K. Howard, “The Concept of Soul in Psychology and Religion,” in Faith & Thought, No. 98 (1970), 63-84.
(4) C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Touchstone, 1975), 24.
(5) Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York: Touchstone, 1945), 702.
(6) David San Filippo PhD, “An Overview of the Near-Death Experience Phenomenon,” National Louis University Digital Commons (Dec. 2006). URL: https://digitalcommons.nl.edu/faculty_publications/27
(7) Jeffrey Long, MD, “Near Death Experiences: Evidence for Their Reality,” NCBI (2014 Sep-Oct; 111(5)), 372-380.
(8) Zingrone and Alvarado, “Western Adult Near-Death Experiences: Features, Circumstances, and Incidence,” in The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation (Santa Barbara: Praeger/ABC-CLIO, 2009), 17–40.
(9) A.R. Moody, Life After Life (Covington: Mockingbird Books; 1975).
(10) Michael Potts, PhD, “The Evidential Value of Near-Death Experiences for Belief in Life After Death,” Journal of Near-Death Studies, Summer 2002. (https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc799266/ accessed February 20, 2022), University of North Texas Libraries, UNT Digital Library, https://digital.library.unt.edu
(11) Robert Martone, “New Clues Found in Understanding Near-Death Experiences,” Scientific American Journal (Sept. 10, 2019). https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-clues-found-in-understanding-near-death-experiences/, accessed February 20, 2022.


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